Commencement Speech - JSB

North Carolina State University (NCSU) – May 9th, 2009


Good morning… This is a special day for both you and me. For you – because today you are commencing a new and exciting journey that State has well prepared you for. For me – well, I am certainly not used to speaking in such a spectacular sports arena as you have here.

Flying down here yesterday I had to ask myself – what do I have to offer you?

Yes, I am a student of innovation. And, as you all know, State has worked hard at providing you the skills and ways of thinking that will help you become entrepreneurs and innovators – keys for success in the 21st century.

Of course innovation has always been important but in today’s world of accelerating change and constant disruptions, innovation is more important than ever. And here is a surprise. Not only is innovation more important than ever it is also easier than ever! How can that be??

Simple – as every part of our economy gets stressed out more and more, we can’t just keep doing the same things even if we try to do them better. We have already maxed out – so to speak. We are exhausted; there is no fat left in the system.

Now we must find fundamentally new ways to do new things. But to do new things we must learn to see things different…

But how - you might ask??

My answer is simple – Look to the Edge – become edge dwellers and thinkers. No, not necessarily fancy academic edges – although that is where I started out… but consider all the edges around you… Generational edges, for example. You folks graduating today are the leading edge members of the net generation or what others might call - the digital natives.

You learn, create, socialize and entertain yourselves in ways foreign to your parents and likely to your employers, as well. Mention Twitter to your potential employer – and they will ask – “What is that?” Just yesterday I had a famous, Silicon Valley lawyer explain to me how ridiculous Twitter and Facebook are. Wrong! They are not ridiculous, nor stupid – they are just different – enabling you to work and collaborate in new ways. Indeed, you will need to be constantly experimenting with these, and other, social network tools in order to find ever better ways of collaborating and then, I hope, in helping us learn from you. Hmmm, perhaps this might even become a form of reverse mentorship – but if so, please remember to be patient with us. We, the ancients, are slow learners. But also remember to be bold and brave. Come up with something radically new or some radically new way of working and at first you won’t be believed. But remember, no innovator is ever believed – at least at the beginning. I can’t remember a single radical innovation I have been involved with that wasn’t considered insane or ridiculous when we first rolled it out.

But the most important key to thriving in the 21st century is your willingness to constantly learn new things. In a world of constant change, most skills don’t last very long. Indeed, perhaps one of the most important things you have learned at State is how to work with and learn from each other. For example, just reflect on the power of the informal study groups you have formed while here. Learning with and from each other is the secret to mastering change and driving innovation.

This might all sound so academic – yeah, and what else would you expect from a PhD? But the truth is that today, the focus of my research is far from the halls of the academy. I am intrigued by extreme performances on extreme edges. Let me introduce you to the person – or should I say a 20 year old kid – who has put the island of Maui in Hawaii on the map for extreme surfing. His name is Dusty Payne, now the reigning Junior World Champion of surfing.

He came within a whisker of winning the prestigious 2008 Triple Crown of Surfing and recently won the richest single maneuver of surfing competition – the Kustom Air Strike - winning 50k for completing a huge upside-down full rotation where he was seven feet above the lip of the wave, upside down, no straps, and then came straight back down with the greatest of ease. I could go on forever about what he can do – but instead let’s try an experiment – and see him in action.

But my purpose here is NOT to introduce you to extreme surfing but rather to draw attention to how six or so kids came together to fiercely compete but also to continuously learn from each other. These kids would gather in Dusty’s living room and pour over YouTube videos and their own videos of themselves experimenting – trying impossible moves, failing, failing, failing but never getting discouraged. As a group they learned, they invented, they created new aerial moves that defy the imagination. (please note that on the twists you just saw, there were no foot straps on the surf board.) And, as we would say in business lingo, they also studied adjacent domains such as skate boarding, snowboarding, motor cross and then built analogies from them, talked them over, analyzed them to death and then dashed down to the surf to try them out.

Maui is now the center of this kind of extreme surfing. No, not the north shore of Oahu, but Maui – the island never known for producing a champion surfer. And all this because Dusty and his buddies decided they could do the impossible and they pushed each other and learned with and from each other to the extreme. These kids have mastered the art of innovation. So let me end with an overall observation. You are entering a world of accelerating change, if not constant disruption. If you can figure out how to embrace change as a challenge and an opportunity and if you can think of mastering change as fun -- you will thrive in the 21st century. It really is that simple!

And good luck on your forthcoming journey.


Acknowledgements: clip from The Pursuit (DVD) - An Aaron Lieber film; open source music remix.


Copyright © 2009 John Seely Brown. All Rights Reserved.